A peachy, sun-drenched Roanoke residential street. Lemon branches, lit like a Hollywood starlet. Murmuring waters along the Rivanna River.
All are captured in paintings displayed in a two-location exhibition in Lynchburg, and besides a thread of contemporary realist style, there’s something else connecting them: decades of vision cultivated by a community of artists in Central Virginia.
Dubbed “New Real” by gallery owner Steven Coates, the exhibit lays some familiar-feeling Virginia scenes among vibrant still lifes and striking symbolism. Having opened up shop in the Wyndhurst neighborhood of Lynchburg about three years ago, Coates said his gallery was taking on a contemporary realist tone and he was pulled to bring together this particular cadre of artists in a show.
Almost every piece feels tangible and vibrant, like a memory. Coates said that the style is well-suited for an audience that’s experienced an overarching ennui over the past few years, between the pandemic and other factors.
The accessible, yet evocative imagery should resonate with people who are “looking at what’s around them with different eyes and seeking out meaning” in the wake of all that, he said.
Bill White, one of 18 contributing artists, said the show brings to mind a quote from Henri Matisse about wanting art to feel like a comfy armchair.
“I think people are wanting to see the things that feel familiar and something that they can relate to that’s not too complicated for them to interpret,” he said.
Now living in New York, White recalled the support of an ever-growing artist community scattered through the south central swath of Virginia decades ago. Many of those artists were connected from area colleges and universities — White was a professor at Hollins University for almost 40 years.
It made for an energizing, albeit not quite competitive, environment where he and the others held a sympathy for each other’s work, provided feedback and visited shows, he said. That support system flourished amid special tours and events, galleries, museums and spaces for artists dotted across the region.
Another contributing artist, Ann Glover (she painted the peachy Roanoke street), taught alongside White off and on for several years and has known many of the others for years. She was first transfixed by the work of painter Fairfield Porter during a Roanoke show in the late ’70s — using contemporary or painterly realist style at a time when abstract reigned — and found many others similarly admiring his use of flat color and exaltation of everyday subject matter.
Though each artist’s flair and subject matter differs, she said those themes took root in that community and she found that she needed to teach the style to her students.
“This is right brain painting,” she said. “It’s really using the mise en place that chefs use. You’re getting all your sauces and your ingredients right. … We’re not naming things, we’re just reading purely visual information.”
With ever-present inspiration from the region’s varied landscapes, White said their work finds life beyond just realistic representations, inviting the viewer on a deeper dive into its familiar subject matter.
That contingency of Porter admirers is well-represented in the exhibit, Glover said, along with a few fresh faces she told Coates he must include.
“Many of us have watched each other’s work develop throughout the years, and that’s been a really good common thread for all of us,” she said.
White said it’s important that the old guard be joined by new names in the exhibit. And for some of the established artists, it’s a chance to remind patrons that they’re continuing to create significant work, just as they were 40 years ago.
“It’s the opposite in the larger art world; it’s hard for older artists to get gallery representation,” he said.
Coates said it was a need to be fulfilled. He noted those artists are of a “great generation” who experienced turbulent changes of the ’60s and ’70s and are now seeing similar trends and changes. To bring their work together felt natural, and he said the idea was met with unanimous support.
“It’s a circle of friends and family, basically,” he said.
Also among the exhibit’s artists are Frank Hobbs and Rosalie White of Staunton’s Beverly Street Studio School, as well as University of Virginia-connected painters Philip Geiger, Richard Crozier and Lincoln Perry, whose murals enliven the walls of Old Cabell Hall.
Perry’s new book, “Seeing Like an Artist,” was cause for a special reception scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Virginian Hotel in downtown Lynchburg, where he’ll be reading from the book and signing copies. A second reception at 5 p.m. Saturday will take place at Steven Francis Fine Art gallery in Wyndhurst.
Both Glover and White said it’s an esteemed honor to be among so much talent. Glover added that such an exhibit of painterly realism is unprecedented and Coates is a fearless curator for connecting the artists — it’s one thing to envision the broad influence of the movement in the region, but another thing for it to come together in an exhibit.
“New Real” will run at both locations through Feb. 23.